'Sharp Objects' Composer Alexandra Stréliski on How Elton John & Pop Music Influence Her Melodies

Raphael Ouellet
Alexandra Stréliski

As one of the foremost new stars in modern classical, pianist Alexandra Stréliski is a wealth of knowledge of masters, measures and complex music theory. But when speaking with Billboard, it becomes clear she'd much rather talk pop than Bach (though her heartbreaking interpretation of his Concerto in D Minor may suggest otherwise).

"I listen to pop music much more than I listen to classical music," she admits. "I get inspired mostly by my favorite pop songs. I'm not analytic about it, though. I'm more of an intuitive person when it comes to playing. I think of something and there's an emotional response to it that I might get inspired by. I don't reflect on what it is. For me, it's just the way I write."

Even if it's an inward journey for Stréliski, the melodies she creates seem to have cosmic roots in more pop-minded composers such as Randy Newman and Jon Brion, which the pianist attributes to her appreciation of Frédéric Chopin.

"His music was very steeped in melody," she says of the virtuosic Polish pianist and composer. "And they are very accessible melodies, close to what could have been seen as pop music back then. There's definitely a crossover there. I love Elton John the same way for his melodies. He's such a fantastic piano player."

When you listen to her second proper LP, Inscape, the accentuation of melody in her material is palpable, which helped integrate a number of the album's compositions into the critically acclaimed TV adaptation of Gillian Flynn's novel Sharp Objects. Key selections from the album were utilized intermittently across a number of crucial scenes in director Jean-Marc Vallée's hazed, haunting daydream of a Munchausen murder mystery, while the album cover for Inscape was on display in one episode, adorning the "Now Playing" easel in the listening room of complicit, cuckolded husband Alan Crellin, magnificently played by the great Canadian screen actor Henry Czerny.

"I think Vallée is one of those rare people who gets the complexity of human emotion," explains Stréliski of the director, who used the composition "Prelude" from her 2010 debut Pianoscope for his Oscar-winning 2013 film Dallas Buyers Club. "It's weird, it's twisted, but there's still love there. He's so subtle in the way he presents these moments. On the show, there's a big clash between the softness and nostalgia of the piano and all the dark stuff that goes around in the house. And when you look at Alan, for instance, he escaped actual life through music."

And what remains long after the shock ending of Sharp Objects knocks you on the floor are those beautiful melodies from Inscape selections "Plus tôt" and "Changing Winds." It's the delicate minimalism of serenity in not only those compositions but the entirety of Inscape that gives this music a much needed feeling of meditative exhalation for the listener in these most uncertain times.

"Music is just what I do naturally, and I'm very happy if I can bring a sense of healing with what I do into the world. I think we do need moments of calm and peace and a bit more being in the present moment," she expresses. "I myself experienced a huge moment of clarity about that not too long ago. I was working on something in advertising and was experiencing a bit of burnout, so I know what it's like to go too fast and not thinking of which direction you are going. But playing this music allowed me to take a moment and reflect and dream, and enjoy the sweet side of life. If I can do that for other people, that makes me happy."

Stréliski will perform in Paris at the MaMA Festival on Oct. 18.

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